The Community Club

Cover image for Ben's ten tips for building a community from the ground up
Ben Halpern
Ben Halpern

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Ben's ten tips for building a community from the ground up

This is an answer to @lee 's post. I mention Forem a few times here, but only because it's relevant and it wouldn't be authentic for me to not bring up my own thing during this kind of discussion.

I took the question of "ten tips" and tried to brain dump my best efforts. These are things I continue to do in practice every day, along with points I surely did not mention. We have a bunch of new initiatives and product improvements coming out this year at Forem and they are 100% guided towards making the hard parts outlined here a little less hard.

1. Allow for "single player mode"

In the early days there will be a mismatch of idea creators and consumers. So you may need to focus on finding just enough interested consumers to get by while gradually showing them the permission to create. Content here is shorthand for ideas and thoughs.

2. Be longterm-minded

My biggest regrets in community-building efforts that didn't pan out was to stop trying when success might have been just around the corner. When I started DEV, I gave myself 10 years to achieve success and the promise that I wouldn't stop pounding the rock until it cracked— Or if 10 years had passed. That was about 6.5 years ago now.

3. Love thy platform.

Get to know the nuance of growth within the ecosystem— Especially early on. There was a time in the sweet spot of Slack, Twitter, and any other catalyzing technologies when getting to know how to find folks was enabled by getting to know the platform and understanding how it ticked.

In the Forem ecosystem that means getting to know the new things we build for discovery and understanding how to flexibly fit in. We're still early days, but there is an "App store optimization" or "SEO" scenario that fits every space. Use the large monolithic platforms to help buoy you, but seek independence. (More here on #9).

4. Think holistically about what community is

In the era of "web publishing" it can be easy to lose track of the feelings of community... There will always be a medium, and you don't need to get too high-minded about it, but remember to see past the medium and try to think about the underlying purposes of community... The need for togetherness, mind-melding, learning from one another, etc.

5. Find ways to make participation easier

If weekly participation, either as a creator or consumer, can become easier, you have a lot of wins. Maybe asking YouTube creators to cross-post their videos to your community instead of having to convince folks to create entirely original content. As long as you can get some kind of flywheel spinning with some consumption along the way, you're adding value through curation and aggregation.

6. "Growth hacking"

In the spirit of AirBnB's early Craigslist postings to drum up listings, there are places to go to try and squeeze a little interest. Remember, it is ultimately about community. Doing anything spammy or unethical is tempting, but will never lead to the best outcomes.

7. Come up with cost-effective physical touchpoints

If you can physically send people things, it is just... nice. In the early days you have the opportunity of being really thoughtful with how you do this. It will be harder later, so take advantage of your early energy to do a bit of gifting. To make it work for your community, find a way to associate it with something that directly helps the community grow. (I can't quite say what that would be.)

8. Find colleagues and co-founders

I think it's great to get things started on one's own. It's a way to maintain vision, and be thoughtful about who you do bring on, but whether it's a company project or your own personal community venture, eventually you should find people complement your skills and help make this thing happen.

9. Don't sell out to the giants

The sub-header here is to use Forem. I really think the only true community building has to happen in a way that enables independence. I cringe when I hear a podcast say "join our community by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter". Not only is this just advertising for a giant which will bait-and-switch you at some point, it also means that every single community action is running through the most obtuse and faceless algorithms on earth. This really isn't how community needs to be built.

We first built DEV on Twitter, and our inability to moderate replies up to the standards of the community we wanted to build was just one of many reasons why independence was vital. We've poured years of work into the technical aspects of making DEV and Forem work, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend that burden on anyone, but I would recommend following our path and getting involved in the early days of the Forem project.

10. Be awesome and have fun

Living the community spirit and caring about your constituents is the only way true community forms. Don't lose sight of what matters.

Discussion (6)

lee profile image
Lee Wynne

This is great Ben. I’d love to see something like this turn into a playbook overtime. Patience is definitely up there, I think it’s easy to put top much pressure on yourself if you aren’t growing every day.

Really interesting insight on creators v consumers. Out of the 500k + members on Dev, what do you think the ratio is? That might help set expectations on what to expect when you have 100 members.

mac profile image

"Be awesome and have fun" - this is the number one thing I tell people. Community is all about relationships and connections between people. Have fun with it, and other things will flow naturally.

ben profile image
Ben Halpern Author

Yup, also goes hand in hand with my point #2... It's a war of attrition, and you have to find happiness in the process and the relationships you make. Don't try to build community in a domain you don't care about or in a way that is counter to what gives you energy.

michaeltharrington profile image
Michael Tharrington

This is a seriously inspiring post! All great points, but I love #3 & #4...

On #3, It has been seriously fun learning the Forem platform and getting to have a voice in how it grows. I think that's something that is awesome about this platform too, it's open source and you can help develop it. Plus you can join where you can pitch in ideas even if you don't code.

On #4, but along with the platform, you really point out how it's the people and the standards/tone set by the community that makes it all worth it.

oliverding profile image
Oliver Ding

The #9 is great. Platform Independence is a critical agenda.

quinncuatro profile image
Henry Quinn

Per point 7: for DEV, was that when you were sending out merch to whoever cracked the top 7 every week?